Saturday, February 27, 2016

Nicholas Stargardt on the Germans' Experience of the War

Germany During the Second World War
 When, in the summer of 1950, after graduating from College, I returned to Germany from which our family had emigrated eleven years before, I gathered my first German impressions as an adult. I then wrote to my parents that quite aside from issues of Nazism, I found people to be quite rigid and bound by self-imposed rules—even self-righteous. My mother retorted that except for the Nazis, she saw nothing wrong with the German ethos—though that’s not how she phrased it. I was uncomfortable in Germany—my resolution to pretend that I didn’t speak the language lasted half an hour. However, my annoyance when I was repeatedly envied for having left before the war—my father was sent to Dachau on the Kristallnacht; as Jews, we were lucky to get out. I did not return to Germany for another thirty–plus years; not inadvertence. These thoughts were brought to mind by my reading, just completed, of Nicholas Stargardt’s book about how Germans experienced the second world war that had begun with their invasion of Poland.
   In my view the book, The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945, is a brilliant achievement. The account of how the German population—from its soldiers and officials to ordinary inhabitants of every stripe—experienced the war, told with copious citations of letters and diary entries, makes fascinating and revealing reading from beginning to end. Here I want to make a few comments, just short of random and far short of a review, of which many can be found on the internet. But before doing so, let me confess that I was able to read this book because neither the participants of those events are still alive nor most of the generation after them—while their contemporary descendents, I optimistically believe, have assumed views and attitudes quite distinct from the personages that populate Stargardt’s book.
   My comments mostly concern what was news to me. Let me start at the top. Hitler is more offstage than on. Of course he makes speeches now and then and he is reported to give orders to the military and to appoint and dismiss leading military leaders, but he makes far fewer appearances than I would have expected. However, that does not mean that he is not emphatically present in the minds of a very large proportion of the population whose fervent patriotism attaches them equally to the Führer and to the Vaterland.
   The high-level governmental officer with is a much more frequent presence is Goebbels in his role as minister of propaganda. He regularly writes pieces that are widely read, he makes frequent pronouncements and gives orders to a variety of purveyors of propaganda, in writing and on radio; he also gives directions to the worlds of theater and film. Goebbels is concerned both to shape the beliefs of the German population and very much about their morale. What struck me about him, given his beliefs as a faithful Nazi and devotee of Hitler, he is not at all a hack, but clearly very perceptive, really smart.
   In part in consequence of effective propaganda, but also rooted in a much longer and deeper tradition of what I will just label as German patriotism: sentimental and ideological attachment to the Vaterland, to the Heimat. That pervasive mindset accounts for a lot that went on between 1939 to 1945. Enthusiasm for the war at the start, stick-to-it-ness as it developed with significant ups and downs and, finally, the stubborn unwillingness to give up until the bitter—very bitter—end.
   Jews, are a multifaceted topic. While, rightly, given its subject, the book does not include an account of the systematic murder of Jews in Auschwitz and other death camps, it does report about what the population knew. But otherwise, Jews are incessantly invoked. Jews are the agents of the Soviet Union, Jews are behind the American participation in the war against Germany: you name it, and it’s because of the Jews. It is so mechanical, so routine and certainly not based on any knowledge. Irony: when prominent representative of American Jews asked that the rail tracks to Auschwitz be bombed, they were turned down because their proposal didn’t fit into Allied plans for the war.
   In any case, incredible powers were attributed to Jews; and since only a few were left in Germany during WW II, whatever was the rhetorical value of that appeal, it basically came to not very meaningful slogans.
   Finally and most seriously, I was shocked and amazed about the killing that went on throughout this period. Executing—that is, just shooting—Jews of course, prisoners, inhabitants of conquered towns, women and children very much included, killing German soldiers thought to be laggards. Killing people became well nigh routine. No procedures: no finding guilty under some rule or law. Some official, some authority high enough not to be questioned, decided on the death of a group of individuals and that was that. On numerous occasions what even Germany’s enemies thought were the rules of war were wantonly disobeyed.
   Denazification after the war (and after the conclusion of this book) did not deal with these issues. It would take the passing of the warring generation to restore Germany to the status of a Rechtststaat. 



Monday, February 22, 2016

This op ed was written on August 10, 2010 and I am unclear whether the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ever published it. It's all still true, alas. Le plus ça change, le plus c'est la même chose. 

Higher Education: Sound the Alarm
            We have rightly been proud of our system of higher education, with close to 5,800 public and private universities, four-year liberal arts colleges, and community or junior colleges.  (I will cite many such facts in this piece.  Since neither space nor journalistic mores allow room for citing  sources, I beg the reader to believe that I was reasonably conscientious in trying to get them right.  It has also often been rightly stated that the thriving of the United States depends on the health of these institutions—to provide the research for a dynamic economy, the training of those needed to run it, and the education of a competent citizenry—not to mention the broadening of minds that makes us a civilized country.  I here want to point to a trend that constitutes a danger to the health of these vital institutions, in the hope that greater awareness will lead to restorative measures.
            Not that multiple developments in post-secondary education have not frequently been cited and at times deplored.  I will cite them, briefly indicate why they deserve criticism, and will then try to claim that they are all part of a single underlying tendency.
            Begin with tuition and fees.  The startling fact is that in the last 30+ years, that amount has risen almost three times as much as general inflation—an increase even greater than that of medical costs.  To give a local and more recent example, in 1997-98, tuition at Pitt for Pennsylvania residents averaged approximately $4,500, while it was about 15,000 in 2009-10; for out-of-staters, the increase went from about $14,000 to c. 26,000.  I’ll let you calculate the percentage increase.  Yes, these numbers are offset by financial aid; but, you can be sure that such help did not increase concomitantly.  The fact is that in 2009, 58 institutions charged more than $50,000 a year.
            I turn, briefly, to some consequences of these increases before turning to their causes.  The most important is that higher education has become less affordable for many and that the debts of those who braved it have become ever greater—both serious effects because income has not similarly gone up in that period. 
            Further, these astronomical increases in cost have converted students and their parents into consumers, where they were once clients of educational institutions who knew best.  Among other consequences, this has led to huge college and university expenditures for buildings and staff that minister to students’ non-educational “welfare,” such as plush athletic and recreational facilities.  Nice perhaps, but diversions of funds needed for education—the point of college, after all.
            One reason for these tuition increases is the constantly decreasing infusion of public funds, especially from strapped state governments.  But another is the huge increase in administrative costs, thanks to the addition of what is euphemistically called support staff.  “Over the last two decades,” begins an April 20, 2009 New York Times story, “colleges and universities doubled their full-time support staff while enrollment increased only 40 percent. . . .”  I am guessing that the Northwestern dean’s office is today three to four time as large as it was when I left it in 1987.  These new folks are not engaged in evil activities, but few of them, you can be sure, serve the primary functions of teaching and research.  There is little doubt in my skeptical mind, that over time, administration has become an end in itself.
            But at the same time that “support” is more plushly funded, the funding for teaching has shrunk markedly, certainly relative to enrollment.  In institutions across the board—from prestigious private universities to modest community colleges—lecturers and adjuncts, full-time and part-time, have replaced regular tenured and tenure-track faculty. “In the 20-year period, the [same] report found, the greatest number of jobs added, more than 630,000, were instructors — but three-quarters of those were part-time (italics added).”  There are at least two consequences for education of this shift of teachers from regular faculty to ill-paid itinerants, an actual or potential Lumpenproletariat.  Granted that many lecturers do a conscientious job of teaching, not remotely are they selected with the same care as are tenure track faculty, not to mention the formidable hurdle that achieves tenure.  Second, the faculty cadre that debates and decides on educational policy, such as graduation requirements, is an ever-decreasing fraction of those who teach undergraduates.  (These are issues that “consumers” of higher education should worry about.)
            Last and indeed least in financial effect, there has been a phenomenal increase in the compensation of college and university presidents.  A New York Times article of November 2, 2009 reports that “23 Private College Presidents Made More Than $1 Million.”  It was not many years before that when any of them earned as much as half of that.  The financial impact of this inflation is small relative to the total cost of the system of higher education, but its symbolic significance could not be greater.
            University presidents have become CEOs, chief executive officers of institutions now regarded as corporations.  But colleges and universities are not like corporations.  Their mission is to not to invest money in order to make more money, ultimately the sole goal of a business.  Rather, the job of educational institutions is to accrue funds so as to be able achieve the multiple goals of educating undergraduate and advanced students, engaging in research that pushes out the frontiers of knowledge, and in serving society as advisors and helpmates—a different game altogether.  We must learn—and quickly—to tolerate and support institutions that are not built on the model of corporations.  For if universities don’t play the game of university, no other institution in our society will take their place.  We cannot afford losing them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bernie Sanders' Identity as a Jew

Bernie Sanders: First Jewish Winner of a Primary
Bernie Sanders and a First for Jews” is the title of an article in the New York Times of February 15, at least on the internet where I read it. I will come back to that headline.
   I subscribe to many of the proposals that Sanders proposes. They are utopian, however, with zero chance of being implemented—even if, per miracle, Sanders were to be elected president. They resemble the views of Norman Thomas who was the socialist candidate when I voted for Truman in my first vote. As Hillary Clinton said, “we are not Denmark.” So I see Sanders’s activities to be designed to push Hillary to the left. And that is a Good Thing—as it is pronounced in 1066 and All That.
   But I am a bit queasy about how  Sanders identifies himself. “I am the son of a Polish immigrant,” he told his frenzied audience, reports the Times. Well, he is and he isn’t. There are in effect two quite distinct groups of Poles who came here. There are those who wound up in the largest Polish immigrant community in Chicago and in other settlements in the Midwest or, for that matter in New York. Most of that population is Catholic or at least was that when they arrived in the States.
   The parent Sanders referred to was a Jew, probably from one of the large Jewish neighborhoods  in Warsaw or another Polish city; the internet is not revealing. A great many of such immigrants first settled on the Lower East Side in New York.  However, those two populations of Polish arrivals have no more to do with each other than either group has with the inhabitants of Little Italy, a bit further North.
   I myself am a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. It would certainly be misleading for me to say that in 1939 I came to America from Germany, as if I were ready to look for an apartment in Yorkville, once a very German neighborhood, with not a few adherents to Nazism during the Hitler period. No more (this is speculation, but not idle) would Sanders’ parent have looked in the US for Polish communities that they left on the other side of the ocean.
   Like Sanders, I am no longer an observant Jew, though I started out as a diligent one of the conservative stamp. Nor has my circle of friends been limited to Jews, though, through the years, there have probably been a majority of them. However, without flaunting my Jewishness (I think), I somehow make sure that anyone who is more than a fleeting interlocutor knows that that is what I am. I diligently read the NYTimes obituaries and do not fail to notice when a subject is Jewish—nowadays most often the child of an immigrant couple, mostly but not only from Eastern Europe—where the Jewish population was multiples of the  half million that were my Landsmänner in Germany of 1939. Early that year is when my family and I emigrated to New York. As it turned out, I have dubbed us Holocaust evaders.
   So I wish that Sanders were a bit clearer or more explicit in the way he identifies himself. He is the first Jew ever to win a primary—not a minor distinction!—and he is entitled to brag about it. But don’t hold your breath about his really coming clean.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The German Experience of the Second World War

How the Germans Experienced World  War II
   I am reading a totally fascinating book and by now I am just at 37% per cent, since that’s the way Kindle measures one’s progress, rather than giving old-fashioned page numbers. The title is Germans at War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945  by Nicholas Stargardt; it gives an account of how the Germans experienced the second World War that had been started by Hitler with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Its distinctive procedure is to make copious use of diaries and letters of Germans in all corners of the Reich, many were combatants, but by no means only such. In brief but meaningful quotations they give accounts of their experiences and views, starting with letters sent home to their wives by soldiers who participated in the invasion of Poland.
   A very large number of subjects are covered, touching on all aspects of military and civilian life with very skillfully wrought—very smooth—transitions from one to another.
   When I’ve finished the book, I may report additional impressions of the book, but I won’t compete with the many reviews to be found on the internet, quite a few by experts in one or another related subject. But I do want to say a word about the author. Nicholas Stargardt was born in Melbourne in 1962 and received his higher education in Britain. He is a fellow of Magdalen College and teaches European history at Oxford. He is the son of a German Jewish father who emigrated to Australia. I surmise that the father is of my generation, with the difference that I came with my family to New York, while he wound up in Australia, marrying an Australian woman.
   I provide this small bio of the books author, because I believe that he may have been the ideal person to write this book. As a native German speaker, educated outside Germany, but trained as a historian of Germany he was a particularly favorable position to do this book. To look at it in another way, it might well have been very difficult if not impossible for a native German historian to keep out of the text a certain defensiveness, even when writing these many years later than the events recounted. On the one hand, Stargardt is in full command of the facts that he reports and on the other, he is able to refrain from making judgments about that huge range of events—from pronouncements by Hitler and Goebbels to reports about horrendous atrocities committed by so many Germans during this period.
   To point to a quite different German trait, I have both been impressed and amused by the evidence of German Gründlichkeit, thoroughness, of keeping records. “By 1943, a mere 3,450 people had been punished for listening to foreign radio. . . . between April and November 1942, 1,375,567 civilian workers went into the Reich from the occupied Soviet territories, a further 291,756 from the Polish General Government . . . compared to 357,940 from the Netherlands, Belgium and all but northern France” etc., etc.

   Stargardt is married to Lyndal Roper, a distinguished Oxford professor of history and a prolific author about witchcraft. Considering that the Germans stuck with Hitler to the war’s bitter—and ruinous—end, that Oxford household has been coping with a good deal of irrationality.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Writing Your Autobiography

Another Pittsburgh Post-Gazette OpEd of Long Ago.

First Person: A life's story / The pleasures and perils of writing your autobiography
Saturday, January 10, 2004
By Rudolph Weingartner
Nothing quite resembles writing an autobiography. Anyone tempted to tell his or her life story might be interested to hear something of the kinds of decisions I faced in writing and publishing such a tome.
I wanted to write a chronicly piece that "gets it all down," not a memoir focused on a theme or period. (A commercial publisher, I knew, would take such a book only if it told a gripping tale or were written by someone whose very name sells books.) But of course there is no "all." To whatever is written, still one further fact or event might be added. There is always a need to select. But with scholarly subjects (the breeding habits of field mice) or with journalistic ones (the trial of Andrea Yates), numerous principles of selection are embedded in the subject, guiding the author as to what to include and leave out.
When I called my book "Mostly About Me," I knew well that "Me" is not a rule-governed subject. What I would write about and in what detail was entirely my decision. What had a significant influence on my life? What do I want readers to know about me? What do I want to brag about? (Be sure that braggadocio is a motive.) And what might be of interest to the reader, especially including one's life's shadier sides? These are some of the criteria and they are not necessarily compatible.
But there is also a far less voluntary "principle" of selection: what and how the writer remembers the past, sometimes augmented by a written record or consultation with other witnesses. For me, both of these enhancements were limited, consisting of spotty, ill-organized files and a paucity of remaining informants. The subjectivity of my own recollections took over. By focusing for several weeks on a single period, my mind would be jogged into remembering what was not at first available to me.
But memory is notoriously fallible. Thus, even though what I set down becomes the "official" record whenever my discourse is the only written account, its objectivity remains questionable.
Inevitably, my autobiography is not so much the story of my life as the story of my opinions about my life. And that includes opinions about the many people I encountered; there is a long index of persons. Numerous people are merely mentioned, but about others I say what I think -- or mostly. There is no point in writing a book like this if it isn't honest, reflecting the writer's beliefs, whatever the topic. And yet, while that rules out insincere mealymouthedness, there is a need to avoid brutal frankness, so as to attenuate the hurt words can inflict, not to mention the lawsuits they might engender. For me, the test was that I should be able to defend what I say to the person I discussed.
My opinions about all conceivable subjects are everywhere -- some stated briefly, others extensively; sometimes I pontificate. But these ubiquitous intrusions of narratives about other people and of talk on many themes -- religion, art, writing philosophy, job-hunting -- create the paradox that the chronicle of a life can be told chronologically only in broad outline. Many decisions must be made about how chronology should be sacrificed on the altar of intelligibility.
Although full of people and events, the book is nevertheless not about my life and times. The "times" are background and, on occasion, push their way up front, as in the account of my childhood in Hitler's Germany or when, in 1967, the campus of San Francisco State, where I was teaching, exploded into near chaos. To provide more broader contexts would have made the book even longer, but not necessarily better.
Writing this autobiography was a mixture of the pleasures of craftsmanship and the pleasure, rooted in masochism, of decision-making and of repeated revising of passages in the attempt to get them right. The mixture in the subsequent process of publishing was nowhere near so favorable. Subsidy publishers work for the writers who pay to have their manuscript turned into a book. I enjoyed designing the cover, selecting fonts, laying out the table of contents, etc. But since the person who was to manage my account quit just after I sent in my instructions, there were slips. The proofs that came were configured by computer programs wielded by operators who seemed never to have seen a book.
I made corrections, reintroduced my instructions and waited. Finally came another set of proofs -- identical to those of months earlier: not one change had been made. Indeed, everything I had sent in, a fat wad of paper plus floppies, had gotten lost. I sent copies to start all over again. More battles ensued between me and the publisher's computer programs, until finally a quite decent-looking book emerged -- by no means error-free -- a triumph of persistence over mechanical thinking, or of no thinking at all.
Almost five years had gone into the creation of "Mostly About Me." Now and then I think of more things that I might have included, but luckily it is too late for that. I am done, pleased with the result, and more than ready to turn to other things.

(Rudolph Weingartner lives in Squirrel Hill ( "Mostly About Me" is available at several Pittsburgh bookstores.)